There is a lot of nonsense going around about how Jewish college students relate to Israel.
Peter Beinart has argued that young Jews are alienated from Israel. More recently, writing in this paper, Mitchell Bard, quoting recent studies, suggests that Jews on campus feel closely connected to Israel.
My own experience inclines me in Bard’s direction. I have not found the profound alienation that Beinart describes.
But I am far less optimistic about the future than Bard is, and I am skeptical about the strategy he proposes for building Jewish support on campus.
According to Bard, Jewish students believe that public criticism of Israel should be avoided. Like their elders, he says, they accept the traditional American Jewish position that the people of Israel, who must live with the consequences of decisions on peace and security, “should decide their own fate.”
But the Israel issue plays out very differently on campus. The question being asked is not whether Jewish students should criticize Israel, but whether the government of the United States should support the policies of the government of Israel—financially, politically, and diplomatically.
When put in this way, Bard’s assertion has no relevance and is contrary to what students learn in class and know to be true: the United States does not determine its foreign policy on the principle that other states “should decide their own fate.” It offers support based on a careful calculation of American values and American interests.
In fact, the premise of the pro-Israel lobby has always been that the United States must aggressively assert those values and those interests. And it would be a terrible mistake to suggest that other countries, including democratic allies of America, should be supported on the basis of simplistic claims that they are responsible for their own destiny. If Great Britain were to announce that she had instituted a boycott of Israeli products and demanded American support on the grounds that England, a longtime American ally, must be permitted to make its own decisions, American Jews would respond with anger and disbelief. And then we would call on the United States government to take whatever action necessary to bring about a change.
My point is that the college students I meet with are astonished to be told that criticism of Israel is forbidden because she must “decide her own fate.”
What they do respond to, however, is a values-based argument. I tell them that the heart of American foreign policy is (or should be) the support of democratic governments, democratic values, free markets, and human rights. I urge them as American citizens to actively promote a values-based American approach to the world. And I urge them as Jews—for whom Israel is central to our identity—to work tirelessly for Israel’s welfare precisely because Israel is a small, embattled democratic country that embodies the highest American ideals.
But I do not tell them that they should never criticize Israel. If we support Israel and promote American foreign policy because of our commitment to certain values, then we need to be able to criticize when those values are violated—whether by the Jewish state or anyone else. I do tell them that they should be slow to criticize Israel and must examine the facts with great care; that much criticism of Israel on campus is mistaken or distorted; and that Israel is a vulnerable country in a dangerous neighborhood, and that if criticism is offered, it should only be done in an appropriate and loving way. And then I conclude by telling them that nothing is more important than visiting Israel and learning first-hand about the values at her core.
In my meetings with students, I have found that they respond to this approach far better than to what Mr. Bard calls “the traditional American Jewish position” of avoiding all public criticism of Israel. We can try to censor and silence Jewish students on campus, or we can appeal to their idealism. I prefer the latter.